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What Is Design Thinking?

Feel the empathy.

Back to the Drawing Board

Design thinking has long been used in product design – it’s how many Apple products get created. But in the past few years, the process has become widely employed by a variety of industries. Businesses and services focusing on everything from healthcare to politics have begun to embrace this form of problem solving once reserved for traditional designers.

“We use the approach of design thinking as a process to solve what we call wicked problems, which are problems that are ever-changing, that are very difficult to even identify,” said Kristin Machac a professor at Radford University in their MFA in design thinking.

The problems may be wicked, but the steps are quick and quite simple and usually include research and empathy, data synthesis or problem defining, brainstorming or ideation, and prototyping and testing.

“The idea is that you can apply [design thinking] to any type of problem solving,” said Rhea Alexander, a professor of strategic design and management at Parsons School of Design. She credits the rising popularity of design thinking to the growing importance of technology and the increasing complexity of businesses.

People want simple ways to work with complex systems–whether that be an app or a hospital–and to make sense of this complex world, many businesses have turned to design thinking. “Design has really been the center of a lot of businesses in the new economy,” Alexander said.

But design doesn’t mean what it used to. “We now have so many different types of designers,” Alexander said. “People call themselves designers, and they might be a business designer, strategy designer, user experience designer, human centered designer. Then there’s the traditional graphic designer, there’s a front-end designer and back-end designer. They really are using the word designer in so many different ways now.”

Design thinking can incorporate some or all of these new designers because ultimately design thinking is just “a process for creative problem solving,” said Machac.

People tend to think “it’s more mystical than it is,” said Alexander. “A lot of the design strategy companies have started to brand their own version of this process to try to set them apart and make them unique, or they’ll add extra steps in the process, or give them different names in the process to make them sound more special, but it’s a generic process.”

One important aspect of the design thinking process is empathy, which even when called different names has one goal: “seeing things through the different stakeholders’ eyes,” said Rhea

To understand a stakeholder’s point of view, researchers might take a fly-on-the-wall approach–not asking questions only observing. Another strategy is embedding, where researchers might go undercover as a patient in a hospital for a healthcare problem or work the line in a factory to solve a manufacturing issue. Creating personas is another way to go. “Personas are a tool that we use to begin to identify archetypes of individuals within a problem,” explained Machac.

“Recently I did a study with a coworking space and we identified personas of members that were a part of that coworking space so we could try to identify opportunities for sustainable revenue streams,” Machac said. Think about the types of people you see at your local coworking spot, and you’ll start to get the idea.

Another area where design thinking differs from other business processes is in prototyping. Design thinkers work quickly and aren’t afraid to fail. “Instead of taking one big idea and spending lots of money and months to years developing, we develop several different solutions and test them very quickly,” said Alexander.

Some prototypes work, most don’t and that’s ok. Going back to the drawing board is actually fine in design thinking.

“It’s an iterative process,” said Alexander. “Which means you do it over and over again.”

Learn more about Radford University’s MFA in Design Thinking and Parson’s Master of Science in Strategic Design and Management.

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